What Preceded the Morton Salt Warehouse on Elston?
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What Preceded the Morton Salt Warehouse on Elston?

If you’re a life-long Chicagoan, you likely have fond memories of driving downtown in the family car, straining your eyes for the first glimpse of your favorite billboard or neon advertising signage suggesting how close you were to the end of your drive.

Back in the day, the Magikist signs and the Dad’s Root Beer smoke stack beckoned people to the city.  These magnificent vestiges have long since given way to the wrecking ball, replaced by non-descript condos and commercial structures indistinguishable from the miles of grey that form the patina of Chicago’s highways.

One of the most well-recognized and certainly the longest-lived visual highway marker is the Morton Salt warehouse sign. Heading downtown on the Kennedy, you knew that the Rock & Roll McDonald’s, the Water Tower and Michigan Avenue was just a few minutes away when the Morton’s Salt sign burst into sight as you passed North Avenue.

Located at 1329 W. Elston on the banks of the North Branch of the Chicago River, the Morton Salt warehouse sign has stood sentinel in one form or another for over 80 years. While the lettering and paint color of the roof signage have evolved, remaining steadfast has been the Morton Salt Girl trailing a stream of non-clumping salt behind her.

For those of us who love the sign posts of Chicago’s history, it was bittersweet to hear a few years back that the Morton Salt warehouse on West Elston was scheduled to be redeveloped after the well-publicized collapse of the warehouse wall, covering dozens of new cars under a mountain of street salt.

Redevelopment of the Morton Salt Warehouse by R2

With former industrial properties along the North Branch being transformed into residential and associated commercial properties, it was only a matter of time before the Morton’s warehouse was sold for redevelopment. However, in a nod to both Chicago’s history and an admittedly awesome advertising venue, Morton’s Salt required that any developer of the property maintain the roof sign in one form or another.

Gensler Rendition

Morton’s was wise to tap R2, a Chicago real estate investment firm with properties on Goose Island, River North and the West Loop, to lead the development plans. Under the guidance of Matt Garrison and his partners, R2 has taken the lead in transforming Goose Island from an aging industrial park to active, urban landscape serving thousands living and working in River North and River West.

Christian Herrmann, Morton’s CEO stated in a press release,  “It is with that long, rich history in mind that we decided to explore a wide range of possibilities for the future of our iconic site. We knew it was ripe for redevelopment, and we took great care to find the right firm to help bring our vision to life. This (R2) redevelopment plan represents the next chapter of the Morton Salt story in Chicago…”

I had the good fortune to work on a potential deal with R2 last year as chronicled in a Crain’s story by Alby Galun. It was a complex deal involving the bankruptcy court and seven Boardwalk Capital Holdings properties that ultimately did not come to fruition.  However, I’m excited about the work R2 is doing at the Morton’s facility, and the possibility of our working together sometime in the future.

Before Morton’s Salt There was the American Hide & Leather Company

A ton has been written about the Morton Salt company’s interesting history in Chicago with some of the most comprehensive resources I have found listed below.

Morton’s Free Running Salt Container by Morton Salt Company, 1930s”, Made in Chicago Museum

Morton Salt Bulk Warehousing Facility”, Industrial History Blog

As is my norm, after doing a bit of research into the Morton Salt Company I wondered what existed along that stretch of Elston before it was purchased by Morton’s. It turns out that the predecessor to the Morton’s Salt warehouse was a successful tannery, American Hyde & Leather Company. Founded in the late-1800’s, the American Hide & Leather company was in business on Lake Street prior to purchasing the North Branch location on Elston.

Not only was the location close to the newly constructed railroad tracks, the proximity of the North Branch of the Chicago River made the ready supply of and disposal of water, essential in the tanning process, a no-brainer.  Needless to say, environmental laws were “lax” at the turn of the 20th century, and this was no doubt one reason American Hide & Leather favored the location.

As the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1914 below suggests, the tannery, built in 1912, occupied nearly the exact same spot as the soon-to-be redeveloped Morton’s land. Looking closely you can see the Acid Bath and tannery located at the southeast corner of the property, uniquely convenient to pumping effluent into the North Branch.

One of many tanneries situated along the three branches of the Chicago river, American Hide & Leather seems to have had a relatively short run at the Elston location, as Morton’s warehouse was operating on the site in 1929, according the a Crain’s article by Danny Ecker.

It seems that the industrial heritage of this stretch of Elston avenue is coming to a close.  Despite my nostalgia for Chicago’s past, I’m excited to see how R2 transforms the property while maintaining the iconic Morton Salt rooftop sign.